Residents say 'no mega high school' in Milford

The Board of Education's Long Range Planning Committee presented several options for reconfiguring Milford schools over the coming years, but parents who attended a presentation Tuesday night didn't seem especially thrilled with them.

The committee presented two rather distinct plans Tuesday. One is a long-term plan expected to be implemented over a number of years, and the other is a quicker plan, expected to be implemented in the 2015-16 school year and designed to restore the elementary schools to “neighborhood schools,” something that local parents have been demanding.

The committee’s preferred long-term plan, which could take up to 10 years to accomplish, calls for building a new high school for about $240 million to house all of Milford's 9th to 12th graders in a state-of-the-art building. The committee estimates there would be 1,700 to 1,900 students in the one high school. That option calls for two middle schools of grades 6 through 8, housed at the current Foran and Law high schools, and then six elementary schools, serving pre-kindergarten to grade five.

The committee presented two other long-term options: A status quo option; and a plan that would make Foran the one high school, and use Law and East Shore Middle School as the two grade 6 to 8 middle  schools. There would be six pre-K to grade five elementary schools.

There are other long-term options — seven altogether — that the committee has considered but did not discuss Tuesday, including  a proposal to use Foran for grades 9 to 12; Law for grades 6 to 8, and then six elementary schools for grades pre-kindergarten to five.

Declining enrollment

In a comprehensive packet of information available at the Milford Board of Education website, the committee points out that enrollment has been declining and will continue to decline. Total enrollment is down 17% — more than 1,200 students — from 2005, which appears to mirror demographic changes, as annual births are down 17% from a decade ago.

Consolidating and redistricting is seen as a way to make more efficient use of the school facilities and resources in the long run.

Elementary school change

The committee’s short-term change, which they said could be implemented in the 2015-16 school year, would return city elementary schools to a K-5 format. That plan calls for closing Live Oaks School and redistricting to balance enrollment.

Other short-term options include housing pre-K to grade 5 in six elementary schools, closing Live Oaks and Pumpkin Delight, and redistricting at the elementary and middle school levels.

A third option has pre-K through grade four in six elementary schools, closing Live Oaks and Pumpkin Delight. The three middle schools would house students in grades 5 to 8.

A number of parents said they would like to see an option for kindergarten through eighth grade, a configuration that was not included in the list of options.

“K-8 is trending across the country,” said resident Barry Bonessi.

Ed Vanchot said he believes that using the existing elementary schools would allow room for a K-8 configuration, considering that enrollment is declining. “Studies show that the K-8 configuration leads to improved test scores,” he said, adding that Milford needs to make its schools “viable.”

“The middle school configuration is a thing of the past,” Vanchot added.

Energized meeting

Emotions ran fairly high at the meeting, which the Long Range Planning Committee set up to gather public input. The Long Range Planning Committee has been meeting since June, prompted by reports of declining enrollment over the next decade. The board hired the firm of Milone & MacBroom, a consulting firm in the field of educational and facility planning, to help with the study.

The committee is made up of teachers, parents, administrators, school board members, aldermen, and other citizens. Their job is to provide recommendations for the organization of city schools to meet the needs over the next 5 to 10 years, in light of declining enrollment.

Ultimately, the Long Range Planning Committee is tasked with giving the Board of Education a range of possibilities to consider. Their report and recommendations are expected to be turned over to to school board in March. Then the school board will discuss the various options.

Residents who attended Tuesday's meeting thanked the board and volunteers for sharing information with them, but they urged the committee to take the time to make the right changes. Several speakers referred to the move about four years ago to close Simon Lake Elementary School and reconfigure the elementary schools from a K-5 organization to a K-2 and 3-5 organization. Many parents did not like that change.

Adam Eckhart and his wife have a third grader, second grader and preschooler, and the two-tiered elementary school arrangement has made life difficult. He said some days he and his wife have to spend two hours at bus stops getting their children on and off different school buses. “It makes it hard for families to get work done and spend time together,” Eckhart said.

He urged the school board to switch the schools back to a K-5 arrangement for next school year and not wait longer.

Others who spoke said they would be willing to wait longer so long as the school board takes its time and makes the right decision.

Kathy Gage used to teach at Simon Lake School, which closed four years ago, despite pleas, she said, from many residents that the school stay open. “I ask you to take your time,” Gage said, adding that she believes neighborhood schools are the best thing for Milford students.

“Building a new high school is a ridiculous waste of money,” she added.

Jen Federico said she would be willing to wait even though she is sad that she sends her child to Mathewson School instead of Meadowside, which is in her neighborhood. “We live so close to Meadowside I can hear the bell ring,” Federico said.  She is in favor of a return to K-5 schools, but said she realizes the committee is also looking at other configurations.

She also suggested another alternative that wasn't proposed by the committee. Rather than one mega high school or two separate high schools, she proposed a combination: One general studies high school and specialty high school.

Christopher Lickteig said he found the statistics and information that the Long Range Planning Committee posted on the Board of Education website to be confusing and contradictory. He questioned the logic of proposing to build a new school for $240 million when enrollment is down. “That seems fiscally irresponsible to me,” he said.

Lickteig also questioned the existence of preschool programs in the district, pointing out that the city is not required to provide preschool education.

Resident Tim Chaucer was emphatic that one big high school is a bad idea; he's been arguing against that concept for years. The current set up with one high school on one side of town and another on the other side is perfect, he said. “Why would you consider breaking that system?” he asked. “The last thing we need in this day and age is larger schools, where kids get lost.”

Staci Godek echoed that feeling about large schools, pointing out that she grew up in Illinois and went to classrooms with 35 students. She doesn't remember her principal's name, and wonders if she ever knew it. She was angry when the school board voted to split the elementary schools into K-2 and 3-5, and she's angry that school board members haven't called her to ask how she feels about these latest proposals.

Resident Barry Bonessi agreed that huge schools are a bad idea. “The mega high school is dead. Do not even think about a mega high school,” he said.

Joanne Poffenberger said she teaches in West Haven, where a new state of the art high school is planned. She said she'd like to see Milford have the best in terms of technology at its high school too, so she isn't opposed to building a new high school.

She cautioned officials, however, on making any changes for next school year that would affect today's fourth graders. Students in that grade already made several school changes, and she doesn't want to see them have to move to a new school for fifth grade too.

Members of the Long Range Planning Committee said they will take public opinion into account as they continue their mission. The committee also posted a survey at this week to gather more input from the community.

The next meeting of the Long Range Planning Committee is Feb. 11.